By Sam Bush

The Phillies lost to the Nationals at Nationals Park, 6-3, to fall below .500 (79-80) for the first time this season and clinch a fourth-place finish in the NL East behind the Braves, Nationals and Mets.

That not what the Phils and owner John Middleton expected when they signed Bryce Harper to a $330 million contract last Feb. 25.

In fact, they thought this series against Harper’s former team would be the cherry on top of a playoff season.

But, no.

The Phils haven’t even been in the postseason since 2011, when Ryan Harper’s Achilles tendon injury marked the end of a magical run in Philly.

The Phils need to sweep the Marlins in the final series of the season to finish with a winning record, and they need to win twice to finish .500.

The Phillies are 7-15 (.318) since Sept. 3, which is the third-worst record in the league in that span. They are 46-58 (.442) since May 29, when they were a season-high 11 games over .500.

“I don’t think we expected it to go this way,” catcher Andrew Knapp said. “I think there’s a lot of factors that go into that. Injuries and stuff where guys are being put in situations that they normally wouldn’t be in if we had a lot of those bullpen arms. Who knows what would’ve happened? But yeah, I don’t think we expected it to go this way.”

Now wide the talent gap is between the Phillies and the Braves, Nationals and Mets.

“It’s definitely not due to lack of effort,” Knapp said. “It’s just kind of the way it’s gone for us. Everyone’s out there really grinding towards the end of the year and it’s just, the ball hasn’t gone our way.”

Phillies left-hander Jason Vargas allowed five runs (four earned) in just 4 1/3 innings on Thursday, but he got no help from right-hander Edgar Garcia. Vargas loaded the bases with one out in the fifth, when Garcia entered the game with the Nationals holding a 2-1 lead. Garcia walked Yan Gomes to score Anthony Rendon, and then Asdrúbal Cabrera scored on a wild pitch and Ryan Zimmerman scored on a passed ball to make it 5-1 in a flash. It seemed like a fitting way to end a 3-8 road trip.

Vargas finished 1-4 with a 5.37 ERA in 11 starts with the Phils, who made him one of their acquisitions before July 31.

“Mediocre,” he said of his 11-start stint.

The Phillies have a $2 million buyout on an $8 million club option on Vargas for 2020. If they want to catch the Braves and Nationals next season, the Phils might need to decline it and look for bigger upgrades.

They will need to fill holes elsewhere, too.

“I’d love to be back,” Vargas said. “Selfishly, of course, I want to come back. I feel like it is a special group and is just really a few pieces away from having a chance to win the last game of the year. And it would be nice to have another crack at that with these guys. Hopefully that happens, but it is a business and I understand what goes on. And baseball is going to keep going on.”

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